Central California Wine Weekend

Sometime in the middle of last week, I experienced the proverbial “wild hair” and decided to make an executive decision (after seeking my wife’s approval, obviously … “executive” being a relative term as applied here). Time for a weekend getaway. We love Cambria, and have been returning to the lovely seaside hamlet on the Central California coast for nearly 15 years. Originally inspired by a compelling article in the Examiner’s “Parade” section, we’ve been coming back for a decade and a half. We have in fact threatened to move here, over the years. The draw is unmistakable, the visits consistently memorable. Beautiful ride, gorgeous locale, incredible selection of restaurants, colorful local shops, and beaches and sunsets that inspire.

The only real plan for the weekend (other than a few tried and true winery faves) was a Saturday night dinner at The Sow’s Ear with our good friend Dave, who lives in nearby Morro Bay. We’ve enjoyed so many fine meals here, and it was a must for this trip.

The Car

Other than a one day trip from the S.F. Peninsula to Vacaville, and back through Sonoma and Marin Counties, the little GTI hasn’t seen much road mileage yet. Living in Bend meant owning all wheel drive vehicles. Among the “luxuries” of returning to the Bay Area was that I didn’t have to drive an all terrain vehicle. Terrain in and around the Peninsula is freeways, winding roads, city and country streets, but NO SNOW or ICE. Front wheel drive was back, wide summer tires would be great, and I even opted to buy something small enough that might not carry the drum set. Will wonders ever cease! So the new ride was going to get its first road trip, which would be about 400 miles round trip. Vrooooom, indeed.

Headin’ South
Headed up the hill, down 280, onto 85, merged onto 101, and got ready for a long fun cruise. 101 between south San Jose and Morgan Hill used to be an abomination of a ride. It used to take us (meaning yours truly, who did all the driving) a minimum of 90 minutes each way, and it wasn’t out of the question to spend a dismal 2 1/2 hours on the road, on this little stretch of crazy boring highway. And it just never changed over the years. I recall driving it with my dad many many years ago on our boar hunting trips to the Big Sur area, and it was crowded and slow then. Back in the ice ages.

But the widening of 101 finally became a reality about eight years ago (and fully 10 years after the voters of Santa Clara County approved it), and now it’s generally a breeze in either direction. It’s one of those stretches of 101 where people will honk at you to get out of the way if you’re doing sub-80 in the slow lane. Gotta love it.

I still miss Gilroy, the Garlic capital of the world, and a very pleasant place to live. The fact that I was driving the afore-mentioned road in its 2-lane days for 50 miles each way, every day, prompted a move to a smaller house in San Jose. Arguably a big mistake, but water over the bridge in current context. But cruising through Gilroy brought back fond memories of hanging with our next door neighbor Cristie, having big parties and BBQs (a common trend through the years), and enjoying the very warm summer weather into the late evening hours, with the scent of garlic, pungent in the night air.

Below Gilroy is an interesting stretch past San Juan Bautista, home of a great Mexican family restaurant called Jardine’s. Don’t even think of not stopping for a Margarita and some real Mexican cuisine.

Then it’s down past Castroville, and the beginning of a very long stretch of 101 that leads through some of California’s most prolific vegetable growing country. This is the fruit and veggie basket of the state, and provides a huge portion of the lettuce, asparagus, artichokes, celery, etc., for the state and beyond. Below Salinas, you encounter the smaller towns of Chualar, Gonzalez, Greenfield, and Soledad, all proclaiming in some fashion that it’s “Happening” in their particular town.

A few miles before King City (which seems to be a consistent “lunch” spot on the trip south), there’s a row of eucalyptus trees that I look forward to with every trip south through this area. You travel through miles and miles of hot and undistinguished “Chualar’s” (no offense to the wonderful people of Chualar intended) and the trees seem to pop up like a veritable oasis … a long line of gorgeous flowing eucalyptus trees, branches flowing in the hot early summer breeze, peeling bark waiting for the occasional gusts, but overall presenting such a majestic fence along the west side of this stretch of CA-101 south. It’s the little things, ya know?

King City means lunch, not much more than that. It amazes me that there’s as many people here as there are in our wonderful (other home) community of Bend, OR. What do they do for a living? What’s going on here on Saturday and Sunday nights? Do the bigger rock bands stop here? Is there an opera season? If I decide to make my beloved pho on a Sunday, can I find star anise, real Thai basil, and the right noodles at the local Safeway? Not likely, I’d imagine.

But King City gives way to another nice “feature” that I always look forward to … the speed limit changes to 70, all the way to Paso Robles. It’s also a MAJOR speed trap area, so you can’t go much faster, but a little faster is a good thing!

The Wineries
We’ve been visiting Cambria and the Central Coast wineries for about 15 years, so we definitely have a number of favorites. On the north end of Paso Robles, an exit to Highway 46 East will take you through some of the newer, lavish “chateau-like” wineries that have sprung up in the last couple of years. Some are promising, many are just big and modern looking. A notable exception and one of the best is Tobin James.

Tobin’s located a few miles off the proverbial beaten path of Hwy 101, and worth 10 minutes of your time. Huge tasting room with several antique bars, friendly staff, and killer wines. It’s also one of the best clubs I’ve ever encountered – twice a year you get a delivery of excellent wines (often with selections that are only available to the club) for about half what you’d pay for it retail. Good proposition in this economic climate, plus it’s excellent wine.

Once again heading south on 101, you then take the “other” Hwy 46 turnoff at the south end of Paso Robles, which leads through the major wine growing region, and eventually lands you at the coast between Cambria to the north and Los Osos to the south.

The Zins along this stretch are world class. I’d argue that Zin Alley’s selections would measure up to virtually any other zinfandel, anywhere. It just doesn’t get any better. They make one zin, one dessert wine, and one port per year, and all are absolutely incredible.

Summerwood is gorgeous, and always worth a stop. More of a traditional winery with lots of gift items and a huge array of wines, but nevertheless always a great visit.

Eagle’s Castle has become a new fave, and another club. Reasonably priced across the board, great selection, and an amazingly beautiful facility reminiscent of a medieval castle in every respect, including full knight’s armor surrounding a gorgeous “round table” in a special banquet room, and a genuine moat that you need to cross on your way in and out. Well thought out, major investment in the building and wines, and it shows.

New for this trip were …

Denner’s, which features a selection of some of the best zinfandels, blends, and a white called “Theresa” that we’ve tasted. Very, very good wines, beautiful location, and as a young winery they only have room to get better, which they talked about extensively. Great spot.

Jada was awesome, as was Grey Wolf. Turley was incredible, and our hostess, Donna was elegant, knowledgeable, and friendly as she poured us some of the best wines we’d had that day. Turley was one of those “fluke” stops that we decided to take a chance on, as was Zin Alley a couple trips back. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and hope for the best. On this trip, it paid off.

The Food
Saturday night found us at our favorite Cambria restaurant, The Sow’s Ear. Robyn’s is down the street and also excellent, The Brambles always offers a great meal, and several other spots offer good to great fare, but The Sow’s Ear is predictably excellent, and tonight was no exception. I’ve probably ordered their mixed grill (chicken, lamb, and a filet tenderloin section) about 10 times over the years, but this year I decided to branch out a little. Their menu isn’t huge, but you’d be hard pressed to order a “mistake” here. We’ve brought countless friends here over the years, and everyone raves about every dish that’s served.

For this trip, I opted for the Black Angus Pot Roast, which was cooked to perfection and fork tender. Served with a light gravy, garlic mashed potatoes, and mixed vegetables, all of which followed a spectacular seafood bisque, I was in heaven. My wife got the pork tenderloin with the most tasty sauce I’ve tasted in years. Our friend Dave opted for the chicken and dumplings, and also raved about them. Dave brought a reserve bottle from local winery L’Aventure, and it was the perfect accompaniement for all three dishes. If you don’t have a generous friend who comes to dinner equipped with incredible wine, Sow’s has an amazingly comprehensive wine list. This is the first place I ever had Justin Isoceles, as an example. Great stuff, highly recommended.

Desserts included an amazing bread pudding, and a chocolate mud pie that was ridiculously decadent, in a very good way! Doesn’t get any better.

The Lodge
I made reservations at the beautiful Cambria Pines Lodge, which is perched atop Burton Drive, midway between the Pacific and the sleepy little Cambria by the Sea downtown area. The lodge is broken up into a main “hotel” section, a couple of two-floor units, and a multitude of rooms and cottages that range from basic to “suite, fireplace, view.” I opted for somewhere in the middle of these. Rates are always reasonable, although they’ve definitely gone upstream from the original $49 a night, including breakfast. The breakfast is still included (and very good), the rates have adjusted with the economy. The smell of the pines at virtually any time of the day is worth the price of admission. The complimentary buffet-style breakfast in the morning is only a bonus!

I love the Central California coast. Approaching from the East as we did, provides great access to wineries and some beautiful winding roads out to the coast. But you can also do this trip entirely on the Coast Highway, which provides the full experience of Big Sur, Carmel, and the rugged California coastline at its best. Stop at Nepenthe, should you opt for this route. The Ambrosia burger is second only to my all time favorite Joe’s of Westlake. A split of champange and a window seat provides a view of the sunset that you’d be hard pressed to match anywhere in the world. Really.

Ventana and The Post Ranch Inn are two incredible hideways along the Big Sur stretch. Priced at astronomical levels, but worth the splurge if you can possibly do it. Campgrounds are abundant, but fill up very early in the pre-season. Worth hanging on the line and reserving one, if you have the time, but plan early.

The ride home was uneventual, save for some predictable traffic above Salinas, until we got to the freeway section that led to Gilroy. Good time to ponder the wonderful scenery, food, wines, and friends we encountered over this little two day jaunt. You need to do this for yourself every now and again. Actually, do it more often than that … you’ve earned it, you deserve it, and you won’t regret it. Great weekend in every respect.

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5 comments so far

  1. ARUNA on

    awesome post…..nicely written!

  2. Kim - Easy French Food on

    You are making feel horribly nostalgic for California. Why do descriptions of America’s highways tug on my heart strings? Perhaps because some of the best time in my life were spent behind a wheel exploring. These days I just drive to the grccery store or sometimes I make the mistake and drive into Paris (the train is the way to go). Thanks for the great descripting post.

  3. Cucinista on

    I too am feeling very homesick now… but in a good way. It’s sad not to be living in a place you love, but wonderful to have the anticipation of a visit back. I’d hate to be from a place I didn’t want to every return to. Thanks for the great road trip idea!

  4. curiousdomestic on

    Big Sur was one of my favourite places in California. I miss Nepenthe and Pfeiffer Beach. Nice post.

  5. Rachael on

    My husband and I are heading to CA this summer and this post renewed my excitement! Thanks for sharing your great writing!


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